Battling through their third season, the Monterey Bay Sox still have hope.
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Last month Yuta Sekigushi traveled across the world to a land where he doesn’t speak the language to play a game in a stadium that doesn’t have a permanent bathroom.
Baseball, it seems, has a way of moving people to do strange things.
The 21-year-old arrived here from the coastal city of Shiga, Japan, last month, steeled by weeks and weeks of 10-hour practice days, and ready to play outfield for the Monterey Bay Sox, a summer-league team made up of college players from across the country.
At the Bay Sox’s first practice of their season in early June, Sekigushi’s teammates arrive from schools as far off Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Florida. They number more than 30 young men all told, age 19 to 25, who are picked to play after being referred to the Sox by baseball people or the summer league’s management.
They didn’t come for the crowds—over the coming weeks, players on the field will often outnumber the fans in the stands. They didn’t come for the world-class facilities—besides the lack of lavatories (Port-a-Potties stand ready behind the visitors’ dugout), the MPC field, though recently refurbished, is currently short a functional parking lot. And they didn’t come for the money—each standout college player pays for the opportunity to play in the California Collegiate League (CCL).
Every one of these young players came simply for the chance to keep playing.
Pacific Grove High School head coach Gil Ruiz, here to help out with the first practice, watches Sekigushi and his teammates warm up while he waits to throw batting practice.
“Every one of these kids has one dream,” Ruiz says. “Pro ball. That’s what they’re doing here.”
While they are here, given the fact that the Salinas Packers packed their bags after last season, and the Santa Cruz Hammerheads folded in February, these young athletes will be the closest thing the region has to a professional sports team.
Like the pros, the Bay Sox and the other five CCL teams—including the San Luis Obispo Blues, the Santa Maria Indians and the defending summer-league national champion Santa Barbara Foresters—use wooden bats. But they wash their own uniforms and rake their own infield.
They throw heaters in the 90s and crack 400-foot home runs. They use mean pitches to win the inner half of the plate and slide hard to break up double plays. But their games cost just $5 to attend, the hotdogs—cooked on a miniature machine in the small announcer’s booth/snack bar—two bucks.
The Bay Sox bring real baseball to the Peninsula. Players like Texas State’s Teflon-tough leadoff man, Laurn Randell, who has survived being beaned 16 times to lead the team in hits and runs scored, and Doug McGee, the basher from West Virginia’s Bethany College who leads the team in batting average, home runs and RBIs, play a stirring game, without the swollen heads symptomatic of million-dollar contracts or steroids.
“If you like baseball,” Ruiz says, “there is nothing better than college. You don’t have to sit and hear all the bullshit—you just see kids bust their butts for 90 feet. It’s as pure as it gets.”
~ • ~
Yuta Sekigushi doesn’t speak much English. He concedes that he would be lost in a supermarket without help. He does, however, move around MPC’s park rather smoothly, because he speaks baseball: Home run. Walk. Double. Curveball. Steal.
This summer, his teammates have also taught him a few new ones: “Bomb,” Sekigushi says, grinning. “Oh…raking.” Then there’s “marbles”—or as team bullhorn Brenden Elliot yells in his Boston accent, “Maaboos!” It’s an allusion to the slapstick baseball comedy Major League II, in which imported Japanese-league outfielder Takaaki Ishibashi (Isuro Tanaka), urging his teammates to play with more toughness, questions their manhood while graphically hanging his arms beneath his crotch as if he were cradling two gigantic testicles.
When Sekigushi rips a clutch RBI double against Sonoma, “Maaboos!” echoes around the field. When he smashes a batting practice ball over the fence in left center, 350 feet from home plate, Elliot’s call comes with a ball-cradling reenactment. On the opposite side of the infield, Sekigushi smiles and reproduces a more discreet version of the gesture.
Baseball, it would appear, has a way of moving people to do strange things.
Sekigushi’s teammates have shown him some other things as well. “On a road trip, the guys took him to Taco Bell for the first time before a game,” Coach Randall Bispo says. “He hit a home run that night, so I told him he had to go back before every game. He said, ‘Nooooo.’ ”
In return, Sekigushi has shown his fellow Bay Sox that he understands what “raking” means. During pre-game batting practice, his pouncing swing commands attention as he buzzes deep line drives to every field. Early on, his quick bat helped steady the Sox’s inconsistent start, and landed him amongst the top three players for hits, home runs and RBIs. “My god—he is one of the best players I’ve seen in the CCL,” says Elliot. “He is a complete stud.”
During a recent Bay Sox homestand, Sekigushi put his all-field excellence on exhibit, slapping extra base hits (at press time, he was one off the team lead) and running down a fly ball in center, spinning and burning a laser across the afternoon sky to catch a Santa Maria Indian baserunner at the plate.
“He’s so fun to watch,” Bispo says. “He can run, he can throw, and he catches everything hit to him. He has a couple of home runs. He knocks doubles, steals bases.
“And everybody loves him.”
At the end of an inning in which Sekigushi clubs an RBI two-bagger to right center versus the Sonoma Seals, Elliot is there to meet him at the mouth of the dugout. They both bend low to exchange a quick, tightly choreographed handshake around their knees, add a couple more scripted hand-slaps, then rise abruptly and bow to one another.
With the aid of his translator and personal trainer, Takeshi Hayashi—who put Sekigushi in contact with the Bay Sox on behalf of a Japanese firm that pairs athletes with teams abroad—Sekigushi says the disciplined Japanese approach to the game has served him well. Back home, his college team practices for several hours before classes and another seven or so (until 10pm) after the school day.
“The advantage I have is that my fundamental skills are very strong,” he says, through Hayashi. “I can bunt, steal and avoid mistakes.”
He does add that he doesn’t miss the blistering reprisals that followed those mistakes back home.
“A big difference is that in Japan, if you make an error, the coaches are really, really hard on a player. Here, they are more relaxed and focused on next play. It helps me feel a lot more comfortable, not stressed.”
Sekigushi’s work ethic—and all around game—compares favorably with that of his hero, Seattle Mariner perennial all-star Ichiro Suzuki. During practice, Sekigushi mimics Ichiro’s practice of making routine flyballs more challenging by taking them at unconventional angles, and by fielding more balls near the fence. Meanwhile, despite the dense game schedule, Sekigushi adds further agility, speed and strength-training sessions with Hayashi whenever he can. On game days, he arrives early.
Once there, he goes about his work quietly—in direct contrast to his biggest fan on the Bay Sox squad.
~ • ~
Brenden Elliot is never this quiet. But right now, next to the Bay Sox dugout mid-inning, he is talking tenderly to a strangely-shaped rodent he calls “Kirby.” He lovingly places sunflower seeds and almonds in the animal’s mouth, then gives his “rally squirrel” a squirt of water.
“C’mon squirrel,” he pleads, asking the creature to bless the Bay Sox with a little luck to help them gain ground on the Clovis Outlaws, who lead by three. “Get us going.”
Kirby, being a crude drawing in the foul-territory dirt, doesn’t overtly react. But centerfielder Laurn Randall raps a double, and the Outlaw pitcher follows with a walk.
“Yeh, squirrel!!” Elliot barks at every break, rewarding Kirby with more water.
Baseball, it would seem, has a way of moving people to do strange things.
Several other players throw their encouragement behind the squirrel, and bench coach Dennis Marshall even offers advice on what might better nourish Kirby. On the diamond, the walks and wild pitches accumulate, and the Sox spring for a four-run tally and an 8-7 lead. Elliot, even without playing, is in the middle of the action.
Marshall knew he could anticipate a little of this when he took on Elliot from Florida’s Eckerd College.
“I called his coach, and I said, ‘I like the kids to all get along; I don’t like someone have too pushy a personality,’ ” Marshall recalls. “He said, ‘Here’s the thing about Brenden: He never met a stranger.’ Within 15 minutes of getting to Monterey he had four guys from the team meeting at CPK and then going to a movie.”
Elliot is aware that he stood out immediately, thanks to flashy sunglasses, a shamrock tattoo on his neck, and a Boston accent to rival Matt Damon’s in The Departed. “I got here and was like, “Paak the caa in the Haavad Yaad,” he says. “They were like, ‘Huh?’ ”
He has continued to stand out, and not just for his fiery on-mound appearances, where the hurler with the team-high ERA is as likely to plunk a hitter as he is to strike him out with 93-mph heat—flashing glimpses of brilliance that leave easy-going Bay Sox Manager Randall Bispo desperate for greater consistency. Meanwhile, his mouth has its own set of abilities.
Case in point: When a struggling San Luis Obispo Rattler third baseman takes a bad hop off of his chest, Elliot’s raspy “Weaar it!” sends the Rattler manager off the bench and into the umpire’s face, calling for Elliot’s ejection and touching off an extended expletive-charged shouting match that ends in the manager himself getting thrown out.
When the Clovis Outlaws show up in street clothes, having somehow lost their jerseys in transit, Elliot fills their helmets’ ear holes with jokes about their anonymity.
“My goal is to make them cry, or get kicked out,” he says from his standard seat next to the dugout. “I take pride in the fact that every other team hates me. It gets them off their game.
“I should throw in a dip so I’ll shut up,” he concludes, grabbing a tin of Copenhagen.
On the pitching mound, number 33 is just as high-energy, if not more so. Coming on in relief against the Outlaws, he drills his first hitter, then retires the next two batters—only to walk a man and hit another with a pitch to load the bases.
Quickly falling behind against the next hitter, Elliot gathers himself, climbing back into the count, and finally freezing his man with a gutsy changeup to end the inning.
But the roller coaster is just getting going: The next inning, he’s feeling confident and, to the confusion and shock of his teammates in the Sox dugout, he actually begins calling his pitches from the mound.
“I was whispering what pitches I wanted called,” he says. “I was kinda in a groove. You gotta do it when the hitter’s not looking in.”
The brazen Elliot strikes out two hitters, then blows two fastballs past his third victim before inducing a groundout. He leaves the field loudly.
“That’s right,” he yells, looking across the field in the direction of the Outlaw dugout, where they’d squawked loudly at earlier errors by the Bay Sox. “Get the f**k outta my house!”
The following inning, however, his arm seems to stretch with the summer shadows, and his inaccuracy loads the bases. Elliot gets the hook, and the Outlaws quickly tie the game. (In fact, the Sox will lose Elliot for the summer when he returns home this Friday.)
Fortunately, though, the Sox are familiar with a certain amount of adversity.
~ • ~
Catcher Trevor Howell, last year’s co-MVP and the only player to play for the Bay Sox all three years of the team’s existence, has seen some tough times.
After a dominant run at Pacific Grove High School that included a CCS championship as a freshman catcher and four years of all-league recognition, a pair of freakish baseball injuries—a nose-breaking bad hop and an errant warm-up throw to the head—dropped the soft-spoken, hard-working Howell down the down the depth chart at Cal Poly, ultimately precipitating his transfer to MPC and later Sonoma State. This fall, a broken bone in his hand stole his Sonoma season, and inflammation from the injury caused him to miss the Bay Sox’s weekend trek to Yuba City in late June. In their next game, the first of an eight-game homestand, Howell looked to keep a locally-sown dream alive.
“I think I could have packed it all up a long time ago, with all the setbacks, all the time I’ve had to miss,” he says, “but I love playing baseball, love the game, it’s all I’ve known for a long time. It’s pretty simple: I’m not ready to stop yet.”
He steps into the batters box in the eighth, looking up at a four-run San Luis Obispo Blue lead. But his Bay Sox have pieced together a rally, loading the bases with no outs. Howell, hitting third, steps in, relaxed, ready, and representing the tying run.
He sees four pitches all told. The first one is called a no-pitch. The next two are high fastballs. Howell swings twice, just tipping the second one. On the rail of the dugout, a team of dreamers leans closer. A third fastball buzzes in, right up around the eyes and Howell, who still holds PG High’s bench press record, takes a hurricane cut. Whoosh: strike three.
Frustration pinches his face—but Howell reigns in his anger in time to do a small thing leaders do: He pivots in the batters box and taps the next Bay Sox hitter on the rear with his bat, encouraging Doug McGee to pick him up. Howell knows he’ll have other days—in fact, he goes on to homer in his next two starts.
McGee, with two game-ending hits on his Sox resumé already, promptly smashes the first pitch to right. He runs to first with his strange cadence, his arms, elbows out, remaining stiff. The hooking liner gets past the rightfielder, and McGee tears into third base, driving in three. The dugout goes delirious.
The Bay Sox, though, can’t plate another run before the third out. The never-say-die Sox are down to their last three outs, and in danger of losing their fourth straight overall.
~ • ~
Both of the consecutive home games, versus the Outlaws and the Blues, go down to the very last at-bat.
An RBI single from McGee gives the Sox the win over the ‘Laws; against the Blues, Howell gets another at bat with the bases loaded, this time with two outs in the ninth inning—only to ground out to short on the first pitch.
It’s a tough loss, but team owner Dennis Marshall doesn’t sweat it too much. He understands what it’s like to really lose.
Marshall’s wife died in 2004 after a two-year battle against breast cancer. To look after her for those long months, Marshall stopped working in the car business for the first time in 35 years.
“After taking care of her for a couple of years and she passed away,” Marshall says, “I didn’t have the same mental direction needed to start doing all that car business again.”
Instead, Marshall returned to the game he played as a kid year-round on his grandparents’ ranch in Phoenix—the game that brought the likes of Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal to town every spring, the game whose artifacts he has collected for decades, and the game that gave him his very first employment after his family moved to San Jose in the early ‘60s.
“It was my first job with a social security number and a paycheck,” Marshall says, “I was selling items at San Jose Bee Stadium. I was 13.”
Marshall—who can quote half-century-old baseball statistics from memory—began working baseball camps with friend and former minor leaguer Nate Trosky of Carmel; soon after they opened Carmel Baseball on Sixth Avenue, which functions as a batting cage-memorabilia store, housing Marshall’s mountain of artifacts, and an office for their baseball camps and private instruction outfit.
“My late wife Margaret would shake her head when I would come home with another baseball treasure,” Marshall writes on the website, “It was her wish I open this store. I did so in her memory.”
There was still more baseball to come. When Herald reporter Laith Agha, who founded the Bay Sox with support from his father, local developer Nader Agha, chose to pursue a career in journalism after the inaugural 2005 season, he no longer had time to manage all the scheduling, player signings and travel planning. So he sought out someone specific to step in.
“I had several choices,” Agha says. “I could’ve just folded the team; I could’ve said, ‘I’ll take whoever’; or I could really find the right person—someone who is going to be passionate about running the team and put a lot of care into it.”
An informed contact put him in touch with Marshall, who bought the franchise—despite the fact that he knew he stood to make little to no money from it.
Baseball, it seems, has a way of moving people to do strange things.
“He understood that it wasn’t about making money—there is too much to do on the coast in California for a semi-pro baseball team to attract as many people as it does in places like Humboldt,” Agha says. “And I definitely got the sense he was into it. He loves baseball, and wanted to be a part of it.”
For Marshall, the decision was so natural it almost occurred on a visceral plane.
“Sometimes you don’t know why you’re doing something,” he says. “You just do it because it’s the right thing.
“I’m there to support [the players]—to help them out with their dreams. I want to keep baseball going here.”
The gig is not completely magnanimous—Marshall like nothing more than filling out the roster over the spring, talking baseball, and hanging out in the dugout—this year he even hired himself as bench coach.
“I figured if I own the team, I should let myself do it,” he says, “[I] get to be like Don Zimmer. Now I’ve got the best seat in the house.”
The team likes having him there.
“I’ve met a lot of people who love baseball,” says Elliot, “but Dennis might take the cake. He knows more random facts about the most random things about baseball than anyone I’ve met. Everybody sees his enthusiasm and it kind of rubs off, just like someone diving for a ball, it’s the same thing with his enthusiasm.”
The first half of this season has tested that enthusiasm. While some summer league teams enjoy a wait list for host families, Marshall had to come up with the cash for an extra apartment for three Bay Sox players and had to put up three more in the apartment above his store. While teams like the Santa Barbara Foresters arrive in their own rock-band-esque tour bus with their own radio broadcaster in tow, Marshall has to leave part of the roster home on road trips, squeezing the traveling players into as few vans and hotel rooms as possible. MPC ambushed him with word that the parking lot would be under construction for more than half the season; two weeks ago, thieves broke into the locker room and made off with hundreds of dollars worth of gear. While the Blues draw more than 3,500 fans for big home games, the Sox are lucky to get 50.
But Marshall hasn’t wavered. “I don’t need to make money,” he says, “the money I make I’d like to reinvest in the field,” he says. “I just hope the team makes enough to pay its own way.”
Meanwhile, borrowing from his model, the Sox have remained resilient in the face of adversity, and at 6-9 at press time (14-15 overall) sat five games back of first place Santa Barbara in the CCL, who they beat in SB last weekend, and four games removed from qualifying for the National Baseball Congress’ season-ending national championship tournament.
As Howell retreats to the dugout at the close of the 12-11 see-saw affair with the Blues, Marshall stands at its mouth, following the sun as it dips toward the Del Monte Forest across a cloudless sky. He offers a rhetorical question with no uncertain eagerness in his voice.
“We get to come out here again tomorrow?”
THE MONTEREY BAY SOX play home doubleheaders Thursday and Saturday, July 12 and 14, starting at 2pm, followed by home games July 15 (at 2pm), and July 23, 24, 25, 26 and 27 (all starting at 5pm) at the MPC Baseball Field. For more infomation visit montereybaysox.com.